Monday, December 20, 2010

Grief, Travel, Friendship and the Best Bar in the World

"There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
Leonard Cohen

Mike and I met in Guatemala when we were both broken hearted, grieving, grappling with the disorienting notion of what our lives might look like after the losses we had just suffered. I had just endured a series of intimate and devastating betrayals that led to the end of a ten year relationship. Mike had just lost his best friend to an abrupt and unexpected illness - John, dead at 42. We were both bewildered and raw. That was December 2007.

It was late summer 2007 when I hastily decided to take my first solo international trip somewhere, anywhere, someplace no one knew me and I could just be, floating, unattached, where things were different and I had to pay attention to something other than my empty house and the unrelenting ache in my guts....someplace where I didn't belong and nothing was expected of me and every interaction would demand my attention and be fresh and untainted. I needed to get the fuck out of town, out of country, out of my world.

My first solo trip was to Cabo where I intentionally booked two nights in a modest hotel frequented by Mexicans, not gringos. My trip was a week long and I figured I'd spend a couple days in Cabo and then decide where to go and what to do. I hated Cabo as it was packed with idiot drunk gringos who under-appreciated the Mexicans who served them. I spent one day fishing for dorado on a rough Pacific Ocean catching two fish which I brought to a sweet palapa restaurant where the kindly waiters had the cooks make three preparations for me to try. I gave the rest of the fish to the waiters who were my only friends in that town, a pattern that has often repeated itself in Mexico.

The second day I rented a car and headed north along the Pacific Coast in the August heat listening to Mexican music and concentrating on keeping the car on the narrow roads that link the towns of southern Baja. I spent a night in Todos Santos and then headed east to La Paz. I stayed in a gorgeous historical building, el Angel Azul, a B&B run by a savvy world travelled Swiss woman named Ester. We immediately liked each other. After an incredibly successful day of fishing on the Sea of Cortes in an 18' panga with my Mexican guide, she and I took my fish to the best restaurant in town where Jesus, a friendly chef from Tijuana, made that fish delicious. I gave the rest of my fish to hard working locals, people Ester knew. I so loved La Paz with it's sweet Mexican waiters, shop-keeps, chefs and guides, that I extended my trip another week. Ester and I sipped Don Julio in the courtyard and discussed her travels, politics, and local gossip. I snorkeled with sea lions, kayaked, ate ceviche on the beach, met friendly vacationing Italians, and walked the malecon in the evenings watching families eating ice cream cones and listening to the bands that played a mix of American cover songs and Mexican pop.

August days in southern Baja are oppressively hot and I was forced to move slowly, conservatively. I drank glasses of ice water with limes, ate chips and guacamole and obsessively wrote in my journal. My interactions with the locals could only deal with the immediate, the tangible, those things that could be explicitly named, mimed or pointed to...the abstract and conceptual were eclipsed by the language barrier and I was forced to live in the moment. It was perfect and when I returned to the States something had shifted. It was not an end, not a cure for the ache in my guts, the grief, the disorientation, but I had rounded some corner, was looking at some new fuzzy horizon. And I knew after years of traveling in Mexico, I needed to learn some Spanish. Within a month of returning from Baja I had booked five and half weeks in Guatemala over Christmas and New Years. I registered for Spanish classes and arranged boarding with a local family. I had no idea what to expect but I was going to really get the fuck out of town, out of country, out of my world. I was headed to Guate.

My first time in Antigua, Guatemala, I studied Spanish four hours a day, an exhausting enterprise in one's 40s. I ate my meals with my Spanish speaking and very religious host family. I walked the cobblestone streets alone, sat in cafes reading and studying my Spanish, ordering meals with my nascent skills. I sat in internet cafes and wrote emails and blogged at the request of my family. I read voraciously and slept in a closet room in the most uncomfortable twin bed. On the weekends I travelled alone, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, Rio Dulce, Chi Chi, Copan. I was often nervous, lonely...but I was present, engaged, everything was new and immediate. I watched no TV, read no newspapers, listened only to the music available in the clubs and cafes. I talked to all kinds of people stumbling through Spanglish conversations with smiling locals, swapping stories with traveling Europeans and gringos. Save for the snotty young Europeans in my Spanish school, most folks were friendly and engaging, especially the locals.

Although people were friendly to me as I travelled alone around Guatemala on the weekends, in Antigua I was starting to get a bit lonely. I was older than most of my fellow students and they were largely indifferent and often unfriendly to me. Then one day I walked into Dyslexia Books on Avenida Primera and met Carlos, a middle-aged sweetheart of a man, a lawyer from Tennessee who tends the store in the time when he's not working for local NGOs. We immediately hit it off talking books and politics and Guatemala. I asked Carlos if I could buy him drinks for the night at the adjacent bar, Cafe No Se. He accepted and we settled into what would become a liqueur soaked evening of disclosure and waxing philosophic. It was that night that I met Mike, shook his hand over the bar he was tending. Mike and I talked and ranted about US politics and who knows what and after a couple of hours I knew he was to be my friend, that I already loved him. It was a strange but comforting feeling.

Mike and I spent the next night in No Se sipping drinks and sharing our stories. He spoke candidly of John's death, his heartbreak and despair, the disorientation that comes with grieving a profound loss. I shared my stories, the betrayal and loss, the shock and disillusionment of the past year. I also talked about my first experience wrestling with profound grief, the loss of my mother when I was young. We acknowledged that despite its inevitability, death and the resulting grief are not something one can really prepare for. We drank. We talked. We didn’t try to fix each other. We didn’t pretend it was less painful than it was. We didn’t get uncomfortable and change the subject. We didn’t panic and fill the silences. We simply bore witness to each other. Thousands of miles from our lives and histories in the States, we sat together and told the heartbreaking truth in a dimly lit dive bar. And we both knew a profound friendship was being cemented.

One day walking through town Mike asked me what I was doing for Christmas. I had no plans and he insisted that I come to his house for dinner on Christmas Eve. I spent the evening with an incredibly eclectic group of folks, expats and Guatemalans, do-gooders and vagabonds, radicals and musicians. We told stories and shared poetry and drank rum and sang songs till the sun came up. It was beautiful. My heart was still broken but it was also filled with love....that ineffable paradox that is the human condition, the way the human heart can hold both profound pain and expansive love...the bittersweet feeling of love's return when you have suffered its absence.

I am in Guatemala for the fourth time since that first holiday season, my fourth Christmas and New Years with Mike and the various souls who land in this quirky little town this time of year. There are the regulars, the expats and Guatemalans who call this place a permanent home, and those who come back just for the holidays, and those just passing through, this place a stop on some journey. Each year we gather around a long table, eat and drink and sing songs till the sun comes up, giving thanks for the love and friendship. And each year Mike and I have grown stronger, let go of some more of the pain of those particular losses and cultivated a little more hope and peace. And we have noted that our friendship is rooted in our willingness to tell the truth when we were crushed and raw. We both knew that to tell those truths is an expression of great strength, the strength of letting go of pretense.

The other night Mike and I got into a little fight, something stupid and fueled by a little too much tequila. We immediately made up but the tiff threw me for a bit of a loop. Mike and I don't fight. Our relationship is not filled with's elastic and spacious, never demanding. And then a wise friend offered, shrugging off my concern, that to fight is a rite of passage of sorts. To make an ass out of oneself, to be petty or ridiculous and then be quickly and sincerely forgiven, to experience that is to know more the truth of the friendship. I realized she was right and I let it all go. As Mike said to me the next day, "all I know is that I love you and that's all that matters and this is just a little blip and it means nothing." He's half right. It once again means letting go of pretense, the pretense that we will always be our best selves. We will not. And to admit that is also an expression of strength.

Mike recently sent me a draft of an essay he wrote exploring the fragility of life, asserting that: "…occasionally Ye Olde Cycle of Birth and Death grabs us by the lapels and demands our full and undivided. And it does so to shake the comfort out of our heads and remind us that, as fast as gravity, conception or murder, entropy can send your whole world ass over tea-kettle."

I think Mike is a passionate and talented writer. And as his friend, I know some of the back-story that fuels this particular languaging. I know that in the past year he helped victims of the eruption of the volcano Pacaya, that he was one of the volunteers who helped dig people from the mudslides that Agatha's rains caused in Ciudad Vieja. I know that he returned to the states for the funeral of a friend who was murdered by her husband. And I know an ex lover recently gave birth to another man's baby. After reviewing his draft I wrote to him in an email: "One has to acknowledge all that vulnerability and tenderness in order to live out loud, to love big and generously despite the fact that your heart will be broken, again and again. And then again. People will die, people will betray you, volcanoes will erupt and floods will sweep away villages. No one escapes heartbreak. Life is a heartbreaking enterprise, inherently. Denying that leads to severe and potentially irreparable pussy-ness."

One of the reasons I love Mike so much is he acknowledges, front and center, without pretense, without a common self delusion, that life is heartbreaking. He names the pain, calls out the insecurities, stares them down, doesn't let them paralyze him. He does all that and then chooses to love generously again and again. In this way he inspires me and I think all those who know him and read his work.

It's good to be back in Guatemala, with Mike and all the dear friends I have made here. Unlike that first Christmas, I am stronger, happier, healed. I am forever thankful for those early conversations with Mike in that beautiful dive bar on Avenida Primera, because without them and the friendship they birthed, I would not be here today, a better woman, a better friend, a better person.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mer's Going South, Again

For my dear 9.23 occasional readers I wanted to let you know I will be hitting the road again, heading south to Costa Rica and Guatemala and who knows where else along the way.

As is my custom, I will be writing my sloppy barely edited travel ramblings on my travel blog so that they are not ever confused with my sloppy barely edited random ramblings here. So if you're inclined, click over to track my exploits:

Say a prayer for my health and safety and I will do my best to stay healthy and safe.


(For my Family and the Interested)

Nov. 27, 2010
Oakland to Long Beach
Jet Blue

Nov. 28
Red-eye to Guatemala City
Hang out in the airport until the afternoon, super fun that will be.

Flight to San Jose, Costa Rica
TACA/LACSA Airline for both flights.

Dec. 9
Back to Guatemala City and on to Antigua

Jan. 2, 2011
Guatemala City to LA

Jan. 3, 2011
Long Beach to Oakland

Jan. 4, 2011
Sleep all day, I am sure.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Conversations with Jimmy

Jimmy and I were sitting at the MacArthur BART station waiting for a train into the City. We were headed to a concert at the Fillmore to see Dean and Britta perform Galaxie 500 songs. As we waited the following conversation occurred.

Jimmy: "How many times does 12 go into 500?"

Mer: "I don't know. Why?"

Jimmy: "I want to figure out how many months are in 500."

Mer: " Ok, but why?"

Jimmy: "I wanna figure how many years I've waited to see Galaxie 500."

Mer: "Jimmy, WTF are you talking about? You are seriously just making that random calculation?"

Jimmy: "Yes I am. Didn't you see Rainman?"

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mourning Toby T. and Paying Homage to My Jewish Grandmothers

As a recovering Catholic I am not sure if it is proper or typical that I have joyfully adopted the Jewish grandmothers of my girlfriends, but it's how things have gone for me. It's not that I didn't have grandmothers as such a thing is biologically impossible. It's just they were of a different sort, older, more distant, and frankly, less entertaining. My favorite adopted Jewish grandmother, Toby, died recently and I was very sad for it. So I decided to share a little about her, and Suki, for Suki was my first. I miss them both.

Suki (My First)
Suki was the grandmother of my first love, T-. Suki was a slight women, thin with white hair cut short and modern. She stood about chest high to me and she always wore sensible shoes. Defying an almost compulsory domesticity for women of her culture and generation, Suki went to school, learned to paint, prioritized these things with some parity to the caring for her husband and the raising of her children. In her younger years such a path was not met with enthusiasm and I spent many hours listening to Suki tell her stories of the olden days in NYC, the neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the brownstone apartment and the sweltering summers, the family gossip...uncle Sal and the gang. There was no compensatory conviction in her manner but rather a matter-of-fact-ness, slightly removed, as if any criticisms of her choices meant nothing. She just did her own damn thing and if anyone had a problem with that, well, that was their problem, not hers.

I spent several years with the R- family, eating dinners prepared by Suki's daughter Joan, sitting in the living room talking and sipping wine. I watched Joan and Suki's dance, their incessant bickering and banter with all the complexities of their mother daughter relationship....Joan's concomitant resentment and admiration regarding Suki's choices. I heard Joan's stories, her complaints about her mother's spoiling of her older brother, how he got more, like the AC in his room while Joan slept fitfully in the sweltering Brooklyn summer nights. Suki showed no signs of regret, always a wry smile on her face. She lived very much in the present. She was a 70-something year old successful artist living in SoCal. All that other stuff was of the past.

I was a newcomer, an outsider, someone with no shared baggage, no demands. It's a privileged place to be. I had not known many women like Suki, women who were older and had made their own way in the face of resistance, who were from the then exotic (to me) villages of Manhattan and Brooklyn. I liked Suki immensely and I think she felt the same, grinning at me, including me, always answering my questions.

I met T- in college, undergrad, and shortly after I lost my mother. I was grieving, broke, struggling to work my way through school when the universe thought to test me even further and I was laid-off from my job. While I doggedly looked for work, Suki, now suffering from carpel tunnel from a lifetime of painting, hired me to help her with things around her house and studio where she had lived alone for some time since her husband had died. I spent many days with Suki helping her stretch canvass, arranging things in her studio, cleaning this or that. She was, in many ways, a stereotypical artist, odd, eccentric. She was often myopic, having me organize this or that in some small corner in the middle of some bigger chaos....or move this canvass there and then, no wait, back again. I could not anticipate her needs, they were not linked, not linear. I just smiled, did what she asked, enjoyed spending time with her without judgment.

When T- and I broke up, I mourned the loss of Suki, my first adopted Jewish grandmother (Joan too, very much, but this piece is about my Jewish grandmothers). But such is the way of the hyper-mobile modern world where serial monogamy reins supreme. Many of our chosen families are more temporary than we once dreamed. When I broke up with T-, I lost Suki too. Last I heard she was still painting in SoCal.

Toby (My Last, So Far)
When the old folks die, it is not a tragedy, it's just sad. Sad to say goodbye...I think there is even some sadness for knowing that to ask for any more would be unreasonable. Toby had a good run, a good life, a loving family, tons of friends, money, and an incredible sense of humor.

Toby exaggerated for sport. If it was hot outside, it was 1000 degrees. If the meal was expensive, then she was spending her last dime, if she had a cold she was near death. She also had a very porous filter, blurting things out that many would think inappropriate. By the time I met Toby she was in her 70s and had dispensed with the reservations to which many younger folks adhere. She had raised two successful and healthy kids, had cared for the love of her life for 12 years while Alzheimer's slowly stole him from this world, and she had watched as friend after friend buried their husbands. I think she was beyond giving a shit about the trivial niceties...she had earned the right to speak her mind and so she did.

I immediately loved Toby and I like to think she felt the same way. My relationship with J-s immediate family was complicated and often uncomfortable. As J-'s partner I was subject to the evaluations and judgments that often come from parents. Her family was quick to share judgments and opinions but not very forthright with feelings and vulnerabilities, not a very comfortable place for a straight-shooting heart-on-her-sleeve chick like me. Not that I didn't hold my own, I did. It's just we spoke different languages, came from different places, and they leveled judgments on places I had been and would never judge the same way. So I learned their culture and adapted. But with Toby there was less that was unsaid, less pretense, less false politeness. I think she saw, more than J-'s parents, that J and I had a lot of fun together, shared a lot of love and that seemed to be enough for her acceptance.

J- and I were together for a decade and I spent a lot of time visiting with her family and some my favorite times were those spent with Toby. A couple of stories still make me laugh to recall.

After A-'s (Toby's husband) funeral we all (J-'s family and Toby) went to dinner, early of course, as this was in Florida and that's a place where folks eat early. Slightly after 6pm the hostess sat the lot of us at a long table and Toby sat next to me. Toby scrutinized the menu and noted that the "early bird" prices only applied until 6:00pm. When the waiter arrived she asked in her high pitched unapologetic New Jersey accent, "can I still get the early-bird prices?" The waiter very politely explained that it was after six so the full prices were in effect. After he left, with a smirk on her face, Toby blurted out, "what if I tell the waiter I just buried my husband, do you think he would give me the early-bird price?" I laughed hard and then assertively said, "Toby, that's it, I am buying you dinner and you better order whatever you want." We ordered, ate, and then I slapped down some $20s to cover mine and Toby's meal while she grinned at me. Toby had been morning the loss of A- for over a decade and now that she had buried him, there was, of course, a deep sadness, but there was a levity too.

A couple of nights later J- and I took Toby out to dinner again. When we got in the car to head back to the house Toby suddenly exclaimed, "Oh my god, X and X are going to be at the house at 7:30pm! We have to get home before them! I am supposed to be sitting Shiva and they will think I am a terrible widow! Mer, get us home fast!" I was driving Toby's car and as I cranked the engine I turned, looked her in the eye and said, "I'll get you there Tobes, hang on." I sped like a maniac through the wide streets of X Florida while Toby and J- whooped it up, laughing and cheering me on. We skidded into the driveway minutes before her friends arrived, quickly settling into the house, helping Toby look relaxed as though she had been there all evening mourning like a proper Jew. When they left Toby again exclaimed her relief for having saved face. She thanked me again for driving so fast, getting her home in time. I was thrilled to be in service to this woman and thrilled that she had enjoyed my speedily weaving through the slow driving Florida blue-hairs.

It was last December that I heard Toby was sick. I remember it vividly, sitting at the communal computer in the home of my friends in Guatemala, reading J-s email...bone cancer...months left...chemo...terminal. I hadn't seen Toby in a over two years but always asked about her. She was the one I missed, wished I could see but knew I probably never would. And now it was the beginning of her end. I sank into the chair, I was crying, writing J- back, filled with sadness and far from home. And then a few short months later, Toby was dead. Gone. And from the stories J- shared, she was feisty and bitchy the whole way, never admitting defeat. And I like to think she is with A- now, popping off, spewing her hyperbole, asking for the early bird specials.

Note:  Some names have been changed to respect folks privacy.  

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tell the Good Truths Now

This is a true story, I know because I read it in a book. A man was leading a group encounter kinda thingy in the 1970's. The man asked the participants to challenge themselves by sharing a secret with the group. Folks made their confessions, things that included guilt for putting one's parents in an old-folks home, kicking one's dog, being promiscuous and liking it. The exercise brought the participants the predictable realization that they judged themselves more harshly than anyone else in the room. The group leader noted that many folks shared big secrets while others played it more safe, sharing the less risky. And just when everyone thought the exercise was over the man offered them more. He noted that everyone's secrets were negative, fraught with some degree of embarrassment, shame, or guilt for doing something "wrong." Then he said that our biggest secrets are actually our unexpressed love, our shame, our embarrassment for feeling love or appreciation or affection.

I remember this story, read so long ago, because it resonated. I remember thinking, "Damn, he's right." I think it was especially poignant for me, having been a closeted homo for 25 years, feeling a certain guilt and perennial perversion for some of my affections. But his point was not limited to a guilty romantic love. His point was that we hold back, don't express so much of the love and appreciation we feel. In that moment I challenged myself to start telling the good truths early and often. I have made it one of my lifetime projects, and over the past couple of decades, I have gotten better and better at doing just that.

I am a chatty sort by nature and have been most of my life. I will engage waitresses and bus drivers and people waiting in line at the bank. Not always, but more often than many, and usually with some vigor and candor. My sister Juls has often refrained, with a smile, "Mer, stop it, people think you are crazy." I ignore her, smiling, continuing to engage whomever it is that Juls thinks I should leave be. And the thing is, some folks do think I am crazy, or odd, or inappropriate. But I think more than not, by a margin, folks do not. They often respond quite positively, smiling or laughing, or sharing something, often something personal, something unexpected.

If I meet you and I like you, well, I will probably tell you right quickly. I will literally say, "You're cool, I really like you." If you amuse me, make me laugh, I will tell you, "you're really funny, I like hanging out with you." If you provoke me, make me think, challenge me intellectually, I will tell you. If I think you look pretty in a dress, or have an infectious smile, or I like the way you giggle or make pancakes, I will tell you. I will tell you even if it is a little strange for you to hear something nice said about you, even if someone being direct seems foreign or inappropriate. I will tell you because I have come to believe that to not, is wrong, is a kind of selfishness, and it's chickenshit. I don't want to be selfish or a pussy. And if my sharing the goodness I see, feel, hear makes you uncomfortable for a moment, I am happy to be, hopefully, a small contributor to your getting over that shite.

Besides, Speaking Up Could Change Someone's Life
This isn't a perfect fit with what I am preaching above, but I am inclined to share this story here nonetheless. Long ago when I was a teenager and acutely aware of my not fitting the dominant cultural standards for female attractiveness, I had an experience, a mundane encounter that changed in a moment the way I saw myself.

I was at the Laguna Beach Sawdust Festival where artisans from all over SoCal come to sell their wares. It was night and I was with friends at a jewelry counter trying on silver rings...I held my hand out considering a particular ring, noting my chewed up fingernails, the more masculine shape and lines, and I said, "I hate my hands." A woman, the jewelry maker behind the display counter suddenly stopped what she was doing, looked at me intently, eyes narrowed in seriousness and said, "do they serve you well?" Startled, I said, "what?" "Your hands, do they serve you well?" she insisted while staring at me, waiting for my answer.

I thought about it, how with these hands I could draw well, play sports, write, hug my friends, build and fix stuff, a million things I could do well because of the skill and coordination contained in my hands. I looked at my hands again and then at her and answered, "yes." "Then don't hate your hands," she instructed and then she turned away and continued whatever it was that she was doing. In that moment, and through the years when I have reflected on this encounter, I realized the perfunctory dismissal contained in my teenage critique of my hands, the narrowness of my assertion. Never again would I so recklessly and thoughtlessly disparage my parts.

So there you have it. Some thoughts on telling the good truths early and often. We are all so good at criticizing ourselves and others but we really need to work on the complimenting and expressions of appreciation and love. Now go forth and do it. I'll start, I think you're cool for taking the time to read my silly blog. Your git!

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Indifference of Water

It was a perfect storm of white water physics, the raft bumping and tilting at just the right moment as I reached out to dig my paddle in hard, right at the seam where the water was raging. The river grabbed my paddle and I was air-born, falling towards the worst possible part of the aptly named rapid, "The Ledge."

I landed in the heart of the boiling water and was immediately sucked down, my PFD offering no resistance in the aerated swift water. I had not gotten a full breath and gulped a good amount of water. My paddle was ripped from my hands and I felt myself going down, tumbling across the submerged boulders. My thoughts were surprisingly lucid, "my vest isn't working, I hope I don't get caught on anything down here, I need to relax, conserve my air until I hit green water and my PFD brings me up." I was down a long time, as white water swims go. My crew was worried, they were counting, waiting for my helmeted head to pop up. At last the river let go of me and I popped up facing the boat, gasping for air. "Mer, over here!" Dave yelled, and I could hear he was stressed. He stuck out a paddle for me to grab and I ignored it, swimming to the raft and grabbing the handle. Dave reached down and grabbed the shoulder straps of my PFD and started to haul me up....I was dead weight, I had nothing to give to help. Dave heaved again and I was on board, relieved, coughing violently, spitting water and phlegm, trying to correct the forced swim induced hypoxia, trying not to vomit from all the water I had gulped and choked on.

Dave kept asking me if I was ok but I did not want to use any air or energy to answer him. I nodded and held up my hand and I think he finally understood, putting his hand on my knee to calm me, waiting till I could talk. When I recovered my breath I reassured everyone that I was ok and stumbled back to my seat in the front of the raft. We all sorta debriefed on what had happened, me trying to appear good natured about it all for Webster's sake, a 15 year old nervous first time rafter. I think he was pretty freaked out seeing me pulled under for so long and then spit out, coughing and stressed. But such is life when you mess with water, fast water that simply obeys the laws of physics and can't tend to the vulnerabilities of thrill seeking humans. As Dave would say later that day, "it's a numbers game, you can do a run 100 or 1000 times without a hitch and then one day things go terribly wrong."

But my dramatic swim had a happy ending, a perfect recovery by Dave and crew, I was healthy with only a few bumps and scrapes and an adrenaline induced case of the shakes. But this same Sunday afternoon, 37 year old Susan K. wasn't as lucky.

Dave was strapping kayaks to his trailer when I walked up to hug him goodbye, wish him happy 50th b-day one more time. But he looked up grim faced and said he was just informed there was a kayaker pinned, down stream on the Tobin run. Dave is the west coast coordinator for American Whitewater and is an extremely experienced boater, trained in swift water rescue. I asked something about rescue efforts and Dave shook his head, "I think it's a recovery at this point." I sighed and said I was holding out hope until a fatality was confirmed. I jumped in my truck and headed down the canyon, pensive, trying to muster hope. A siren screamed by as EMS rushed ahead to the scene. Shit. A few minutes later I was passing the location, fire and rescue trucks pulled over on the side of the highway that parallels the river. As I drove past I scrutinized the faces of the boaters walking along the highway...their expressions intimated the situation.

I headed west to have dinner with a friend in Chico. I vented my concerns about the kayaker and my own scary swim off The Ledge. The company was a nice distraction but when I got back in my truck for the 2+ hour long drive to Auburn for the night, all I could think about was that kayaker. Did he/she die? Or did they get him/her out and revive him/her. I called Dave thinking he was probably out of the Canyon, back on cell service. I left a supportive message, asking him to call back only if he was up to it, knowing I would see him at a meeting on Monday. He didn't call.

Early Monday morning my cell rang and it was Dave. He quickly offered, "It wasn't good Mer." He had gotten there minutes after I passed the scene, had helped with the extraction of the body. "It made no sense, Mer, where she was, how she got trapped...there was nothing there." She was in an inflatable kayak, had come through a Class III rapid, got bumped from her boat but was out of the rapid, in calm water. She held onto her paddle and that appears to have have contributed to her entrapment. Nearby boaters acted quickly, smartly, a guy with a rescue jacket on, rescue rope secured to him, wading out to pull her out. They struggled for 30 minutes, desperately doing all they could to free her. Finally, they got her paddle out and then she floated free. They did CPR for more than 30 Dave said, "it's easy to start CPR, it's almost impossible to stop." The medics arrived and worked on her some more, but it was all in vain...after 30 minutes in not-too-cold water, you're dead. You're gone. There's no getting you back. Dave helped them get Susan's body out of the canyon...everyone in shock and disbelief, maybe slightly relieved that on this day it was not them who the river had claimed.

At our meeting, Dave and I talked more at a break and he shared how difficult it was to talk with his 12 year old daughter who was in their truck, waiting for her dad to come out of the river with a dead body, a dead kayaker. Kayaking is something Dave and his family do all the time. Dave again said to me, "it's a numbers game, you play the odds, but sometimes you lose." He likened this tragedy to walking down a street and a tree branch falls on you and kills you. You can't prevent it, can't plan for it, shit happens. This woman was not in a rapid, she was in a place that looked safe, benign, but she was dead and those left behind need to make sense of it. Maybe they need to make the story be so random, so distant so they can dare to get back into a raft or a kayak again....even though we all know that if we do, the North Fork Feather might claim any one of us on some Sunday yet to come.

My thoughts are with the friends and family of Susan and all those who desperately tried to save her life.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Witness to Suicide

It was 1:30am and Jimmy sat at his desk reading the posts from others who had also witnessed the horror, the young man hurling himself from the roof top of the Mountain Winery stage, landing in the middle of the Swell Season concert...three feet from lead singer Glen Hansard. Jimmy read out loud, the words stumbling, his shoulders shaking from the sobs. "It was fucked up Mer, it was totally surreal and fucked up....I watched a man die." "I know Jimmy, you're right, it was totally fucked up," I said, my arm around his shoulder pulling him closer. There is nothing else one can say really, other than to acknowledge the insanity, to acknowledge the horror, to sit with it and hug your brother.

That morning I had slept in, rolled out of bed after nine and shuffled into my slippers. I fed Cosmo her kibbles and picked up the papers from the porch, tossing the NY Times on Jimmy's bed, noting that he had not slept there. I knew he and our 12 year old niece Devyn had gone to the Swell Season concert the night before and I thought little of his not coming home, knowing he had probably crashed at our sister Julie's house. I walked into my office, plopped into my desk chair and clicked onto email. "Freaky Experience" read the subject line in an email from my sister Juls to me and my siblings. "Huh?" I thought as I opened it and read:

"Well, Jim took Devyn to her first concert last night (Swell Season) at an upscale venue that included a lovely dinner. What a shock that they were forced to witness a suicide by jumper. Thank god Devyn was looking away when the man fell and hit, but Jim saw the bounce."

WTF? I was suddenly fully awake and calling Jul's. "WTF Juls, are Jimmy and Dev ok?" "Yeah, but we were up till 1am talking, processing it all. Jimmy walked in the door and I could tell he was freaked. He grabbed a beer and we talked for a couple of hours. Thank god Dev was looking away when the guy hit the stage but Jimmy saw the whole thing."

Juls and I talked for some time, she shared some of the details, how two doctors in the audience ran on stage and administered CPR, how folks were sobbing, how several people near Jimmy and Dev fainted, how Dev looked up at Jimmy and said, "Am I going to faint?" "No Dev, you're ok, just breathe normally and you will be fine," Jimmy assured her.

Juls explained how they saw the medevac helicopter coming and then suddenly turn around because the man was beyond rescue, he was dead. Juls explained that Glen had been only a few feet away from where the jumper had landed on an amp after bouncing off the lighting Glenn had startled, then moved towards the man while calling for help. When Jimmy had finished telling the story, Juls turned to Dev, "this is not normal Dev, I want you to know that this is not normal." It was Devyn's first concert....a special night out with her uncle Jim. So it was supposed to be.

After I hung up with Juls I called Jimmy, left him a voicemail. "Dude, WTF? Are you doing ok?" I thought about him all day. Six thirty came and I had just laid down in the hammock when Cosmo lept towards the door, tail wagging....Jimmy was home. I saw him through the kitchen and I immediately knew, he was still freaked. "Dude, Juls told me everything, are you ok?" "Not really, you wanna go get a beer?" We went to dinner and Jimmy shared some more of the details, the latest news they had to stand around for some time while the emergency workers came and went. "Alcohol helps," Jimmy offered, I don't feel so anxious now." "Yeah bud, it's called self-medicating and it's totally cool for a night or two."

After dinner we headed to the local dive bar and shot a few games of pool, drank a few beers and laughed at our own ridiculous silliness. I got dissed and slapped on the shoulder (which spilled my beer) by some agro asshole who I subsequently humbled....and Jimmy made friends with an architect who wanted to be a decent pool player but wasn't. It was a typical Mer and Jimmy night out, laughing, drinking one more beer than we should have, over tipping the friendly cabbie. And then Jimmy was at his computer, reading the posts out loud, a little drunk and crying, asking "I'm not fucked up cause I am crying, right?" "No Jimmy" I assured him, "Crying is a healthy response to having seen a man kill himself." We talked some more and then Jimmy declared, "That's it, I am done for now. I gotta sleep." He put his iPod earbuds in and I jokingly tucked him in and then turned off his light. "Good night, and no listening to the Swell Season dude. I will see you for breakfast in the morning."

Friday, May 28, 2010

“The American People”: A Rant on One Bit of Retarded Contemporary Political Rhetoric

My passport is issued by the United States of America because I was lucky enough to be born here some 46 years ago and for that I am bestowed this privilege. Now I could launch an interminable rant against the precepts of nationalism and empire, quoting generously the likes of Anderson and Chomsky and Said, but I would be, to a large degree, stumbling out of my league, out of my smarts zone. Simply put, I am not smart enough to do that topic even superficial justice. Instead, I will restrict this rant to a contemporary rhetorical strategy that just stick in my craw (even though I am not sure what a craw is).

It is the persistent, unapologetic, ridiculous wielding of, by politicians of every bent, the phrase “the American People.” Incessantly we hear politicians cite what the American People want, think, do. This is done on both sides of the isle and beyond as though this abstraction represents some real population with which the rhetorician is in direct contact. Rarely do politicians employ any qualifiers when referencing “the American People.” We don’t get a “many” or “most” or “a majority” of The American People, we simply get the all inclusive monolithic category. Most often we are told, without apology or irony, that “The American People,” as in ALL of them, all folks, presumably all folks eligible to get one of those US passports, are this or that or think thusly. This retarded* assertion results in a spike in my pulse rate every time I hear it. “The American People”? Who exactly are the American People? Who is this cohesive group of folks that ANYONE is qualified to speak for wholly and completely, with unbridled authority? Seriously? What the fuck?!

I know this is stating the obvious but I can’t help myself. So I am going to break it down. According to the US Census Bureau clock, there are currently 308,914,355 people living in the US. About a third of these folks identify as racial minorities, a little over half are female, and over 80% live in cities. About 76% identify as “Christian,” with 25% of those identifying as Catholic. Just over 1% identify as Jewish, less than 1% Muslim, and 15% do not identify with any religious tradition.

The median annual household income in the USA is about $46,000 with dual earner households being just over $67,000. If you are Asian the median annual household income is $57,000 and if you are in a Black household it’s $30,000, and for Hispanic it’s $34,000. The top 2.5% of the US population makes more than $250,000. And the national unemployment rate is about 10%. And lastly, according to a 2009 Gallup Pole, 49% of US citizens identify as Democrats and 41% Republicans.

I could go on and on citing various statistics that represent the incredible racial, economic, regional, and political diversity in this US of A. But I will stop here and pose this simple question: WHO the fuck are the “American People” that all these politicians are referring to? Are you telling me that a 65 year old Jewish doctor, a democrat living in NYC making over $250,000 a year thinks EXACTLY the same way as a 30 year old high school educated farmer, a republican, living in the heartland making less than $30,000 a year and facing the decline in his traditional livelihood? Can they be singularly represented by anyone asserting “The American People?” Or how about the WASP AIG CEO, a republican making zillions and the Black union factory worker who just lost his job? Give me a fucking break! The rhetoric is simply retarded, condescending, simplistic, patronizing, and absurd and I would really like politicians to stop using it. I know this will never happen, not in my lifetime, but I needed to write it anyway. Just cause. Just cause I am one of those “American People,” and no, John Boehner, Michelle “loop-dee-loop” Bochman, John McCain, and Sarah Palin do NOT speak for me. Hell, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama do not completely speak for me. So please, shut the fuck up with the monolithic references to “The American People.” It’s like the tooth fairy or Santa Claus or bipartisanship in DC, a cohesive thing called “The American People” DOES NOT EXIST.

* I am reclaiming the word “retarded,” taking it back from being PC’d into oblivion because it is actually a fabulous word with so many appropriate applications in contemporary politics (and I mean no disrespect to those with developmental disabilities). My Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2nd Edition) offers the following definitions:

  • retard- 1: to make slow, delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder. 2: to be delayed. 3: a slowing down, diminution, or hindrance, as in a machine.

  • retardation- 1: the act of retarding or being retarded. 2: something that retards; hindrance. 3: slowness or limitation in intellectual understanding and awareness, emotional development, academic progress, etc.

  • retarded- 1: characterized by retardation. 2: mentally retarded persons collectively.

Retarded is a word I NEED these days to describe what goes on in Washington DC. I feel retarded without it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Small Craft Advisory that Wasn’t and the Gale that Was: Highlights from Mer’s 3-Day Micro-Cruise

Some folks have asked that I write up something about my little cruise, so here it is, some ramblings about what I made happen and what simply happened to me.

“I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers, but you look safe,” said the 40-something man in the spanking new black Volvo station wagon. “So do you,” I responded as I clicked into my seat-belt. He wore a green polo shirt and plaid shorts and he did not scare me one bit. On our short ride towards town Mr. Volvo prattled on about how there are no good restaurants in the whole of San Rafael, something I found hard to believe. But he finally recommended Sol Food, a Puerto Rican joint with “good energy.” He dropped me off at the edge of town and I made my way to the main drag where I found, to my delight, the farmers market in full swing. I meandered through the crowds of moms, dads, Marin hippies and slow-walking old folks buying fresh berries and kids eating pizza and cotton candy. I stopped and listened to a Jamaican man playing and singing an acoustic version of Amazing Grace. This alone made my night. The rest was just extra goodness.

I ate at Sol Food, and Mr. Volvo was right, it had “good energy” with a Puerto Rican band playing outside next to the hodge-podge chairs and tables. Dinner was a heaping pile of rice, onions, and spiced meat, a yummy salad, and water with lime. I couldn’t help but wiggle in my seat to the beat of the band. Then like a sliver of iron grabbed by a powerful magnet, I made my way across the street to the local dive bar and ordered a Stella and sat contentedly and listened to more local musicians play folk songs and blues, a scrappy ol’ gent skillfully commanding a slide guitar, a lead singer with an Irish brogue. I talked to no one, but was happy as a clam and finally grabbed a cab back to the marina and snuggled into my v-berth with my alarm set for 7am. I needed to be in the channel out of the marina at 8am to ride the high tide out to deeper waters. So ended my first day.

The day had begun with a NOAA marine forecast for a “small craft advisory, winds 15-25 knots.” After a big breakfast (as there could be no lunch underway), I packed the Mini with a cooler and gear, cruised to the marina, hauled my shite onto the boat, and reefed the main sail before cranking the engine. The sail north through the San Francisco Bay to San Rafael was uneventful and the winds were calm, 10 knots tops, no 15-25 as predicted. I finally relaxed a little and shook out the reef to get the Donna Clare moving another knot through the water. It was a peaceful afternoon as I made my way some 12 nautical miles north through the Bay. After 3pm I was motoring up the San Rafael channel where the water was too shallow for comfort, the depth sounder showing 4’8” at one point, the exact depth of my keel. I didn’t hit the mud (thank Poseidon!) and finally crept up to the dock where John from the Loch Lomond Yacht Club caught my lines and we moored the Donna Clare. John insisted I come into the club so he could buy me a beer and we talked boats, marine engines, and how the channel desperately needed dredging.

Coming to Loch Lomond was a sort of full circle thing for me as this is where my boat was docked when I bought her 12 years ago, the place I lived aboard for a year and a half. I asked John about Bobby’s Fo’c’sle Café where I would eat greasy eggs and bacon on the weekends and listen to all the old salts yimmer-yammer, some of them drinking their first Coors of the day with breakfast. John explained that Bobby’s was gone, suffered a fire, couldn’t get things sorted with the landlord and had moved to town, and a month ago had closed, becoming another casualty of the recession. I was sad to hear it. I had planned on greasy eggs and bacon for breakfast, for old time’s sake, listening to the locals and whatnot. It had been about ten years since I had been back to this place. Things change.

Back on the boat, I did the usual coiling of lines and cleaning up, putting my gear away. I then attempted to make dinner but the winds had kicked up and I couldn’t keep the BBQ lit. So I threw on my jeans and walked to the highway, stuck out my thumb, and hitchhiked into town.

The next morning was still, cool and crisp, and the water was glassy. I quickly readied the boat and cranked the Yanmar and we were off with plenty of water, the depth sounder reading ten feet. With no wind I decided to motor straight to Angel Island and tie up to a mooring ball in Ayala Cove and have a restful day. Whenever anyone shows up to loop into a mooring ball in this little cove, the other folks in already securely moored boats, sit in their cockpits and wait for the show. The way the wind and currents work in this cove, mooring is always a challenge, even more so when you’re alone. I made two unsuccessful passes on the mooring ball, trying to secure my bow first only to be blown off it before I could loop the line. I finally got it looped on the stern and then jumped in the dinghy to get the bow tied off. I got tangled in the long line, had to undo knots, got blown around a bit, rowed in circles, but finally got the old gal tied off and had a good laugh at myself…mine was a decent show, although not the most dramatic by any stretch. I have seen much more entertaining.

After tidying the boat and coiling my lines, I jumped into Chicken, the dinghy, and rowed to the island for a late breakfast at the Cove Café. There were groups of school kids excitedly yelling and horsing around on the docks as teachers scrambled to keep them focused as they came off the ferry. After paying my mooring fee and chatting up the Ranger about State Park budget stuff and the incompetence of the California state legislature, I headed back to the boat for some reading and hammock time. I hoisted the hammock up my forestay and shroud and settled in.

In the afternoon I rowed back to the island and hiked the perimeter trail which offers some of the best views in the whole Bay Area. I sat and shelled and ate peanuts at a vista point offering a stunning panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, Oakland, and the Berkeley Hills. There was no one else on the trail, I had the whole south side of the island to myself, far as I could tell.

Because I had, while packing up at Loch Lomond, inadvertently thrown the propane regulator to my BBQ overboard into the bay water (hey, it happens, more than one likes to admit) I had to improvise dinner. I sautéed potatoes and yellow peppers on the stove in olive oil and butter (I am not afraid of butter) and then added the chicken. I sat in the cockpit at sunset eating my unexpectedly awesome dinner. I somehow lost my corkscrew so I had to use a screwdriver and channel lock pliers (as a hammer) to punch the cork into my bottle of pinot. After dinner I retired to the hammock once again and watched the lights emerge on the Tiburon peninsula. Words fail me in trying to describe the lighting and peace at anchor in calm water after dusk. I am sure, if it exists, this is what heaven is like. I heard some guy in the distance on another boat, say with delight to his wife, “hey honey, look at that guy, in the hammock.” People readily assume if you are single handing a sailboat you have a penis. I smiled, knowing that I do not. Silly man.

A pair of sailors on another boat cruised in and moored next to me as I enjoyed their show, watching them scramble, hearing the skipper bark orders and the first mate yell that he was out of line, they regrouped, added extra line, another sailor came over in a dinghy to help and within 10 minutes they were secure and coiling their lines. I lit the paraffin anchor lamp and hung it on the end of the boom and settled into the cabin for the night, listening to and singing along with my favorite sad songs (that don’t make me sad) and writing in the ships log.

I read all the old entries and smiled, laughing at the one my old pal John had made years ago after he panicked at the helm when I was at the mast. He back winded the jib in 25 knots, suddenly heeling the boat and nearly flinging me into the Bay near Alcatraz. I remember hugging the mast, screaming at him to steer into the wind as he looked at me terrified and saucer-eyed. He copped to the fuck-up in the ships log and we laughed about it all over beers, anchored up at the island. John and I spent a lot of time together, fishing, floating rivers, on boats in the Caribbean and Mexico. John was a good mate and I felt a little sad as I thought about losing him in the divorce, him being Jordie’s brother-in-law. Neither of us made contact after Jordie and I split and I know with certainty in my heart it’s because it would just be too damn sad. Better to just hold the memories and love, and let go. I loved him like a brother and perhaps someday we’ll find our way onto a boat together again.

I brought my harmonica (which I play very poorly and only when I am alone) and played a few songs and then finally snuggled into the v-berth for a boaty nights sleep under an open hatch and a clear sky.

Morning was warm, calm, and clear, and I boiled water for some instant coffee and had a cranberry scone and fresh strawberries in the cockpit. As often happens, occupants on nearby boats noticed me, a woman alone on a boat, an anomaly. They watched me reef the main sail and ready my lines, tie off the dinghy, tidy-up the cockpit. I put on my foulies and listened to the NOAA marine forecast which predicted 10-20 knots of wind. I had a gut feeling they were under-predicting and I was more right than I wanted to be. I headed east around the island and hoisted my sails in the lee and got ready to shoot the slot, the unobstructed area of water where the winds barrel in through the Golden Gate. As I passed Point Blunt Angel Island, the windiest place on the Bay, the gusts came big and hard. Over 25 knots and we were off, bucking across the slot. I was committed and held on as the wind and waves built. After about an hour and a half of spirited sailing, we got behind the City and things settled down, although there was still good wind (see pic of sailing by the City on a calmer day). I kept south under sunny skies and enjoyed the city skyline, getting spanked by an occasional ferry wake. After a couple of hours of mellow sailing I turned north again with the intention of taking the easy way back under the temporary shelter of Yurba Buena Island.

As we approached the island the winds increased dramatically and I grabbed the binoculars and could see the slot was a mess, big white caps and all the boats were heeled hard under reefed or short sails. I knew things would be messy after I cleared the other side of the island back into the slot, so I decided to drop my sails in the wind shadow and motor home. Taking down sails on my boat alone in high winds is an adrenaline pumping experience. When I crossed under the Bay Bridge and cleared the island I got pushed east to the edge of the shallows by a yacht race. This meant I was more exposed to the dramatically increasing winds which I had to take on my beam, the most uncomfortable way to get pummeled by the 4-5 foot waves which were hitting hard and crashing into the cockpit. Helming was tough and after I cleared the racers I turned a bit into the wind to quarter the waves and get some relief.

The winds were howling. Ten to 20 knots my ass, I knew I was seeing winds near 30 knots (later I learned the winds were gusting to 35 at Point Blunt). Without the sails up the boat was not counter balanced and we were tossed around like a cork. Finally clear of the shallows I headed east toward the marina channel which was still a half an hour away. I thought about the fact that I had less than a half of a tank of diesel, a condition that increases condensation and the chance of the fuel lines getting clogged, especially with the boat (and tank) getting violently tossed about in the waves. I had drained a good deal of water off the separator that morning and prayed she wouldn’t fill and stall the engine before I got to the marina.

The winds continued to build and the waves kept coming bigger and faster. At one point, I noticed Chicken, the trusted dinghy that I was towing behind the boat, was riding up on my quarter to the port side of the boat. The violence of the waves had snapped off one of the towing-sling lines so she was off balance. I grabbed the safety line and pulled with a lot of muscle to cleat her off. She settled in line and I hoped she would not capsize with only one line towing her.

Now here’s the truth, in these situations, I get scared when I am sailing alone. Not a curl-up-in-a-ball-and-cry scared, but a scared that acknowledges that if I fuck up it could go real bad, real quick. A few small fuck ups have gotten sailors dead in the Bay. I know enough about what might happen if things go wrong, if the engine stalls at the wrong moment, if the waves get too violent and crash the keel into a shallow unseen shoal. Fear is a relative thing. I know many other sailors would think me a pussy, yet I know many folks who think I am crazy to sail my boat alone, my old boat with no roller furling or lines leading aft. But my truth is that in these situations I am pumped and scared, not just by the conditions, and I have seen worse, but the having to deal with it all alone, no one to bark an order to, no one to notice if I go overboard or hit my head. So I held onto the helm, dampened the waves with the rudder best I could, and prayed that my fuel lines stayed clear and my Yanmar kept kickin’.

After the wild ride into the channel, we made the last turn towards the marina, the short stretch where we were again abeam to the waves and winds before the relative calm of the harbor. Engine dies here, and there’s about 10 yards to the lee shore and going aground, not much time to react. The last 100 yards of vulnerability but we made it. I backed off the throttle and let out a couple of “fuck yeah”s and putted towards my slip. My muscles relaxed and I became aware of just how jacked-up I had been. I was exhausted as I pulled out the boat hook and grabbed my mooring lines off the dock. Home sweet fucking home. Me and the Donna Clare had made it safely back to port one more time. I jumped out of my foulies, put on my shorts and plopped down in the cabin for a “holy fuck” moment with myself. I laughed, laughed with relief. And then I cranked the stereo and cleaned up the boat and rinsed her off. I collected my stuff and headed home, feeling part triumphant sailor and part lucky fool.

All sailors know humility and any sailor who tells you otherwise, is a liar.

NOTE: The next day I watched a couple of episodes of The Deadliest Catch and felt even wimpier! It’s all relative.

Friday, April 16, 2010

NYC Waiter

During a recent trip to NYC Jimmy and I ate dinner at a midtown restaurant where my brother Jimmy ordered mushroom soup and I ordered a salad. When the waiter cleared our plates he asked Jimmy, "How did you like the soup?" Jimmy responded with, "it was too mushroom-y." The waiter turned to me and said, "How was your salad? Too lettuce-y?" Then our steaks arrived. We ate them. The waiter came back and said, "How were the steaks? Too steak-y?" He got a good tip.

I love New Yorkers.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Some Stories of the Rich, the Famous, and the Ridiculous

Officer Rainwater
It was seminal to my early informal education and surely informs any minuscule claim I might have to a smidgen of worldliness, having seen in some intimate way the lives of the
Los Angeles rich and famous. I was 19 years old when I got the job at Westec Security, a company based in Santa Monica, California, serving the rich, famous, and bourgeoisie of western Los Angeles. I wore a slate gray uniform, carried a .38 revolver, wore a ballistic vest and drove a patrol car responding to various types of calls including burglary and robbery alarms, reports of suspicious vehicles/persons, domestic disputes, prowlers, and the occasional shots fired. Although this job was quite thrilling at times, terrifying actually, it was more often boring, waiting for something to happen, responding to routine alarm calls and such. And in between the exciting, the terrifying, and the boring, some strange and funny things happened. It is a few of those stories that I am going to share here.

The beats I worked included Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Bell Air, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Venice Beach and Playa Del Ray. If you don’t know LA, that’s TMZ territory, E-News, True Hollywood Story and the like. It’s where the “stars” call home, as well as those with enough money and the desire to rub elbows with such folks. So here you go, a few tales from my days working to protec
t the rich, the famous, the odd, and the crazy.

What Scared Me Most
What scared me most doing this job was not being shot or beaten by burglars, robbers, or crazies (and that did scare me quite a bit), but rather the very distinct possibility of being shot by the residents I was serving. W
hy this was so will quickly become apparent.

The First Uzi Story
It was the mid 1980’s and the hills were peppered with rich Iranians who had fled their country after the 1979 revolution. Their houses were often opulent, ornate, decorated in light colors, gold accents, large statues in the cavernous rooms of huge buildings sitting on sprawling lots that were fenced and gated. One late night my partner Keith and I responded to a report of a “prowler there now” made by an Iranian woman who was home alone in such a place.

Keith and arrived at the property at the same time and quickly noted the high perimeter wall and locked iron gate across the driveway. We pulled one of the patrol cars up to the gate to step on in order to climb into the yard. We walked up a steep and winding driveway through the dimly lit grounds which were heavily vegetated with bushes and trees. The property was huge.

When we reached the top of the driveway we saw an enormous house out of which came running a hysterical 40-ish woman holding something we could not at first see. She was yelling “Thank god! Thank god you are here!” Before Keith and I knew what was happening the woman ran up to me and suddenly dangled an Uzi in my face, holding it between her thumb and forefinger like it was a smelly diaper, “Here, take this! I don’t want it anymore.” Then with her other hand she dangled a fully loaded amo clip in my face and said, “This too.” I grabbed the weapon and clip, stunned, and said, “Ma'am, I can’t keep your gun.” She responded, “You must! Please take it back.” “Take it back?” I said incredulously. “To the gun store. On Pico Avenue,” she explained with utter sincerity. Despite the fact that Pico Avenue runs the width of LA and the description “the gun store” was hardly sufficient, this request was ridiculous.

We instructed the hysterical woman to lock herself in the house and I held onto the Uzi while Keith and I checked the property. We found no prowler. The woman’s husband arrived shortly after and I gave him the Uzi and amo clip and explained that I would not be returning it to “the gun store” on Pico Avenue.

The Second Uzi Story
It was Christmas day and I was working swing shift, sitting alone in my cold patrol unit, feeling a little blue and lonely. It was dusk when I received the call of a prowler seen in the rear yard of a house. I knocked loudly and when the resident opened the door I could see through the house to a glass door leading to the backyard. In the yard stood a large Doberman pincher and I immediately relaxed. If there was a prowler in the yard that dog would not be standing there looking into the house wagging it’s tail.

But the man, an Iranian with a thick accent, insisted there was someone in his yard. I asked him to bring his dog into the house and said I would check the perimeter. I walked along the side of the house, hand on my gun, looking intently (in case the Doberman pincher was deaf or a little touched in his doggie head). I reached the corner of the house and turned to look into the backyard when suddenly the man, looking out from a rear window right next to me, screamed “There he is! There he is! In the bushes! Honey get my Uzi!” I jumped back behind the corner of the house for cover with my hand still on my gun ready to draw as I looked intently at the bushes. I saw nothing. I immediately said in a loud and commanding voice, “Sir, keep your Uzi put away.” The man said, “Ok, ok, but can you see him? He’s right there, right there in the bushes along the fence!”

The fence was made of wooden planks and behind it was the heavily traveled Benedict Canyon Road, not a safe backdrop for Uzi fire. The “bushes” were hedges that were neatly trimmed with skinny trunks sticking out the bottom where I would have seen someone’s legs had they been standing there. I walked over to the hedges with my baton in hand and jabbed around the branches demonstrating to the Uzi owner that there was no one there. After a thorough beating of the bushes, so to speak, the man was finally convinced. I then impressed upon him the importance of NOT having his honey get his Uzi when an armed officer was checking his property. He thanked me and wished me a Merry Christmas.

I think some of the rich Iranians who left Iran after the revolution were a bit traumatized. And some were well armed.

Tom Petty had lived in the house for years and then Charo and her handsome young husband had bought the place. The call came in “prowler there now seen in the backyard.” My partner Keith and I responded, arriving minutes after we received the call. Charo’s husband, before opening the door, explained that he had a gun. I thanked him for telling us and asked him to put the gun away. He opened the door and showed us the gun and the amo clip he had removed, and then he respectfully put the gun in a drawer.

He explained that his wife had seen a prowler and that she was currently locked in the bedroom very frightened and upset. Keith and I checked the property and found no one, any prowler she had seen was long gone. Keith and I stood in the living room with Charo’s husband assuring him there was no one on the property when he picked up the phone and called his wife in the bedroom. We could hear the muffled sounds of Charo through the door, her thick Spanish accent, talking a million words a minute. Her husband repeatedly assured her that the property had been checked thoroughly and that the prowler was gone.

Finally convinced she was safe, and wearing only a thick white terrycloth bathrobe, Charo burst into the living room exclaiming her thanks to Keith and me. She quickly walked up to me, grabbed my hand and vigorously shook it for what seemed minutes, while she exclaimed things like, “thank you so much you are so brave I am so very thankful that you are here to protect me (the lack of punctuation here is intentional and more representative of her manner of speech).” She went on and on, and yes, she talks as fast in person as she does on the TV, and she is not much taller than a lawn gnome. I smiled, looking down at her, saying “you’re welcome” several times while she shook my hand. At last she let go of me and Keith and I made our way out of the house with that sweet tiny woman thanking us the whole time.

Dinner Interruptus
When responding to a burglary alarm, it was standard procedure to first check the perime
ter of the house or building to see if there was any sign of forced entry. If an unsecured door or window was found, an interior check was conducted. I responded to such a call one summer evening in the neat and tidy neighborhood of Brentwood. I found an open door and so began walking through the house, hand on my gun, checking each room, closets, pantries, anyplace a human being might be hiding.

Half way through the house I poked my head around a corner and looked into the dining room where I found a table set for four with a meal apparently half eaten. There was no one in the room. My heart raced and the adrenaline surged. What the fuck? What’s going on here? Where are the diners? Something’s not right. What horror have a stumbled into? I narrowed my eyes and scrutinized the scene looking for any sign of struggle, foul play, anything that might indicate what had happened, or was happening. Then I noticed the food looked weird, unnatural. Wait a minute, it looks fake. I slowly walked up to the table and realized it was fake. I picked up a half eaten baked potato and turned it over, “$250” read the price tag. Art. This was someone’s idea of art. Fake food made of wax. Expensive half eaten fake food placed on a dining room table. I finished checking the house, no burglars, just the fake food. And who the hell would want to steal that?

It was a dark and stormy night. Seriously, it was. High winds, some rain, and as a result, there were a lot of false
burglary alarms as unsecured doors and windows were blown open. It was late, one or two in the morning when I responded to a burglary alarm at a house on a tiny little street off Mulholland Drive. Mulholland Drive is a mini continental divide of sorts running miles along the ridge of the hills that separate the San Fernando Valley to the north from the rest of LA and Beverly Hills to the south. It’s got an improbable feeling of remoteness, or so it was in the 1980s (see pic, a view from the ridge).

I arrived at the scene and began to check the perimeter of the dark mansion that was built on the steep slope of a hill. I trudged through the bushes, slid down the gravelly slopes, walked through spider webs, and kept an out eye for snakes. The wind was howling up the canyons and the ambiance was very Alfred Hitchcock-y. Then I rounded a corner of the house and saw it! Sasquatch standing tall, it’s hand held above it’s head as though ready to strike. Gasping I stumbled backwards, tripped and fell on my ass. Reaching for my gun and pointing my flashlight up at the figure I quickly realized it was behind glass, inside the house. And it wasn’t moving. Art. More fucking crazy rich people’s art. After catching my breath, I let out an ironic chuckle, dusted myself off and finished checking the property. I don’t think I shared that story with my fellow officers, about how I almost shot a Sasquatch looking character standing in the window looking out over the lights of LA on a dark and stormy night.

Fuck Art, I Want that Ten Bucks
The house had been ransacked and the usual stuff was missing, electronics, jewelry, cash. Also missing was a very special ten dollar bill. The bill had been incorporated into a panting, a large multimedia thingy that was framed and hung in the living room. When I arrived I saw it smashed, laying on the carpet, mangled in the center of the canvas where the ten dollar bill had been removed. The purchase price of the painting? Ten thousand dollars.

The Giant Poodle Statue Attack
It was a routine burglary call on a sunny afternoon at a moderate sized home (by LA standards). I started my perimeter check and as I rounded a corner I saw, through the bushes and over a large porch area, about 30 yards away, the black head of a standard poodle. Being attacked by dogs was a real occupational threat. Like mail carriers and cops, most doggies don’t like uniformed folks poking around in their territory. I stared at the figure for some time and it did not move. I waved my hands, trying to provoke a response, to help me determine if this was anoth
er piece of crazy rich people art or a real dog. The figure still didn’t move.

My view of the figure was blocked for a minute as I made my way through the yard around the landscaping. Then I could see it again and it had still not moved. I waved some more, nothing. I started walking again and then it happened. Suddenly the poodle statue was running at me! I turned and ran towards the iron gate I had come in, slamming it behind me just in time to thwart the giant barking poodle. After catching my breathe, I reached down to retrieve the keys to my patrol car which I always stuck in the crease of my gun belt. They weren’t there. I looked back and saw them laying about 10 yards away in the yard behind the gate, behind the giant barking poodle. Fuck.

I contemplated my options. I could call for backup but I would be the laughing stock of my colleagues, very rough, mostly sexist men with a penchant for brutal heckling. So I pulled out my baton in one hand and my little tazer in the other and went in. I yelled at the poodle to get back, swinging my baton, activating the tazer, as I inched my way towards my keys. The dog backed up, barking and growling only a couple feet in front of me. At last I grabbed my keys and retreated.

As I was sitting in my patrol car doing the paperwork for the call, the residents came home and approached me, asking what had happened. They asked me to come into the house with them to make sure everything was ok. Then they let in Hobbes and introduced me, explaining that he was an eleven month old puppy. He wagged his whole body and licked my hand. I didn’t share the details of mine and Hobbes earlier introduction, how I thought he was a statue, how I dropped my keys running from him, how I waved my baton and tazer at him. I just pet the ginormous dog and then took my leave.

A Little Pink Poodle and my Naiveté
She had accidentally set off her burglary alarm but was surprised to see me walking across her yard. She invited me in and I verified that she was the authorized resident. She was white and plump with platinum hair coiffed and teased big and high, and her house was garish, decorated Vegas-like by my estimation. Then I saw her little dog, a pink poodle. I mean that its fur was actually pink. I knelt down and petted the little thing, noting its cuteness and then looked up at the woman and asked, “Did it come this way? Do they breed them pink?” She smiled and explained that she had her little dog dyed pink. Apparently, they don’t get born that way. How would I know? I was 20 years old and it was the first pink poodle I had ever seen. Come to think of it, it’s still the only real life pink poodle I have ever seen.

The Giant Hissing Rat
It was dark but not late when the call came in, “415 giant rat will not let the resident take out his garbage” (415 is the California Penal Code section for disturbing the peace). The dispatcher was straining not to laugh and I gave a 10-4 doing the same. When I arrived at the house a middle-aged man, with the most serious and concerned demeanor, carefully explained to me that a giant rat was guarding his trashcan. He then took me to the side of the house to show me. I pointed my flashlight at the trashcan and saw two giant eyes peering back. Suppressing an almost overwhelming urge to laugh, I delicately explained to the man that this was not a giant rat but a wild possum and that he would need to call animal control or simply wait for the little beast to move on. Killing possum was not pa
rt of my job description.

Observing the Sabbath Hancock Park Style
Hancock Park neighborhood is a mostly Jewish enclave in mid-Wilshire LA. The more orthodox Jews in the neighborhood observed the tradition that one should not work on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. This also included not using any mechanical devices such as cars and home appliances and the like. It was common on Saturdays, throughout the neighborhood, to see groups of Jewish folk walking to synagogue. One Saturday I was working in Hancock Park when the dispatcher, again straining not laugh, said a resident had requested that an officer come by and start his dishwasher. Apparently it made complete sense to this man that the goyim be directed to use the appliances in the stead of observant Jews. A sergeant came on the radio and pointedly explained to the dispatcher that no officer would be sent to do such a thing. The dirty dishes would have to sit until Sunday.

In Conclusion, for Now
Throughout the six years I worked those west LA streets and those Hills of Beverly, I had many interesting experiences. I met the famous, saw the rich, and had access to a world most never see but in magazines and on TV. I saw opulence I could never have imagined, giant estates with closets as big as small houses and maids quarters as small as closets. I met the stars, and although I was never once star-struck or impressed, I helped to protect them and their property. I was positioned on the perimeter around Penny Marshall’s house when she was held hostag
e by a mad gunman. I repeatedly checked the property of Priscilla Presley when her then young daughter, Lisa, was home alone and frightened. I responded to false alarms set off by the drunk and the lonely who wanted only to see someone in the night. I worked to mediate domestic disputes between the coked-up and dramatic, the crazy and the spoiled. I have held an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe in my hands (they are very heavy). I accidentally drew my gun on Sydney Sheldon’s maid while checking his sprawling estate after a late-night alarm. I watched Harrison Ford eat an apple wearing only a pair of jeans and I spent 45 minutes talking about Russian art with John Candy as he sipped vodka neat. Several times I met Jermaine Jackson and really liked him. I learned that Phyllis Diller can be quite the cranky bitch and that Harry Hamlin is so slight I could easily have kicked his ass. I also got shot at once, heard the round go by my head, and once I almost had to shoot a man, but thank god, he did everything I told him to do and didn’t reach for his gun. All this before I was 25 years old. Like I said, it was part of my real life education. And it was this early experience that largely compelled me to go back to college, to get educated, to not become a cop. And for this, I am forever grateful.

Plus, I have a bunch of good stories.

NOTE: I have shared the funny and ridiculous here…but there was a dark side to the job. The abuses, shootings, racism, sexism, crimes, dead bodies and the three officers who committed suicide during my six year tenure. But I would much rather talk about pink poodles and giant hissing rats.